The purchase Acts 8:26-40: A case study in sermon introduction

A sample sermon introduction illustrating one way of preaching

John McVay, Ph.D., is the president of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

One sermon introduction strategy that I enjoy is to imagine scenes implied but not described in detail in the biblical text. I find that such introductions can effectively catch the attention of the listeners and draw them into the passage. Though longer than most introductions, this type introduces the passage itself and allows direct comment on the text to be more compact. Recently, I preached a sermon on the story of the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26-40). What follows is the introduction that I used. I offer it as encouragement to pastors to consider beginning a sermon in this style.

True, its quarters are a bit cramped, : the bookshop is elegant in its own right. And it's sign is impressive: "The Authorized Temple Bookshop." Inside, most shelves are neatly stacked with scrolls. Some, though, have become a bit disorganized, with scrolls tucked in haphazardly atop others. A few of the shelves have evaded the feather duster for a month or two.

The shop is doing its usual brisk business as pilgrims sweep into the store. The last came seeking an Arabian-stallion of a manuscript at a broken-down-donkey of a price. The unsuccessful haggling leaves uneasiness in the room.

At just that moment, the atmosphere shifts dramatically. Into the bookshop steps an exotic figure—a man from the ends of the earth, with beautiful, glistening, black skin. Clothed in folds upon folds of colorful fabric, he bustles, more than enters into the room. His colorful garb is stamped with geometric patterns and dyed in the bright colors of the upper Nile region.

Even in this place—a tourist-oriented business in a very cosmopolitan city—such a customer is unusual. The bookstore staff are immediately attentive. This exotic gentleman steps up to the counter. His visage betrays a steely-eyed look of efficiency and intelligence. Using a Greek that bears the marks of a lan guage institute in Alexandria, he asks, "What is the most important manuscript you sell?"

The question incites hushed conversation among the staff. Finally, the proprietor addresses the customer: "Stranger, I perceive that you are a visitor from the kingdom of Meroe.1 It is our privilege to serve such an esteemed guest. You understand, I am sure, that this is the official bookshop of the temple, the temple of the Living God. We do not traffic in trivia. We sell no trite volumes here.

But if you press me with your question, I— speaking only for myself, you understand—I would have to say that it is The Scroll of Isaiah, Isaiah the prophet." "Could I see the copies of this scroll of the prophet Isaiah that you offer for sale? I would like to see them in the Greek language." For a few moments, the bookshop staff stir about the room, picking out a scroll here and another there. They begin to line them up on the counter from the least costly to the most expensive. Given the obvious importance of the visitor, they do not include the cheaper examples of their line. Now they are in place, some ten manuscripts in a variety of materials—papyrus, parchment, vellum.

The scribal hands that have written the scrolls vary as well. The less expensive scrolls are composed by less-experienced scribes. The letters are well formed, but not perfectly and artistically drawn. Moving to the more expen sive manuscripts, the fine hands of the best scribes are in view. The most expensive manuscript of all—on the finest and smoothest vellum—is composed by a noted artist-scribe and decorated in gilt letters. A masterpiece. A work of art.

With the manuscripts arranged, the proprietor calls the attention of his guest to the display and begins to describe the manuscripts, his descriptions punctuated by sounds of assent from the staff. Of course, merchant that he is, he accents the finest of the manuscripts. "This manuscript is truly a work of art, a genuine treasure worthy of the state library of a kingdom as notable as your own." When the descriptions have ended, the proprietor waits for his customer to point to a manuscript and ask, "That one—how much is it?" Instead, the stranger looks up from the manuscripts and requests, "Would it be possible to leave these on display for the next 15 minutes or so? My master would like to see them." The proprietor nods his assent. "Of course, 15 minutes." Fourteen and a half minutes later, through the door rushes another man, this time with two well-dressed attendants. Taller than the last, his clothing is of even brighter colors, the geometric patterns still more intricate. He steps to the counter as his attendants stand two or three respectful paces behind.

"My servant tells me that you have identified the most important manuscript sold in this shop. And here on this counter are your best examples of it... The Scroll of Isaiah, I believe it is called. Is that so?" "Yes, sir." "And is it in fact the most important manuscript sold here?" "Well, sir, as I expressed to your servant, we sell many important scrolls." "But is this the most important?" "Sir, in my opinion, it is." The guest begins at the left side of the display and waves off the first four examples. Bookshop attendants scramble to remove the rejected manuscripts and to rearrange the remain ing scrolls, the half dozen most beautiful and costly examples of The Scroll of Isaiah.

The guest now asks, "Could you leave this display—this fine exhibit of copies of The Scroll of Isaiah the Prophet—on view for just ten more minutes? My master would like to see them." "Oh, yes, sir. We certainly can." As the period expires, a large entourage appears. Servants hold the door and bow low as a regal figure steps into the room, followed by courtiers and servants. Armed guards are posted outside the door. A troop of cavalry waits in the street. In the space of a few seconds the bookshop becomes a study in flattery, each servant and courtesan trying to outdo the others in paying homage to the central figure.

The object of their respect is a rather short man, though he is utterly elegant. Each step and gesture is an exhibit of refinement. There is a cheerful, quiet look of authority in his eye. At his right hand is the tall, distinguished man who had entered the bookstore a few minutes before. It is he who introduces the proprietor and the fine copies of The Scroll of Isaiah the Prophet.

The elegant guest—who, it is now obvious, is the esteemed Minister of Finance of the great and wealthy Kingdom of Meroe—nods toward the manuscript and asks an unnecessary question, "May I?" The proprietor quickly grants his assent, "Why, yes, of course, please, enjoy." A servant steps forward with a small washbasin and a towel. The high official of the Kandake, the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of Meroe, cleanses his already purified hands, dries them, and begins to handle the manuscript. The finance minister examines the manuscript for some time, finally choosing the finest, most expensive copy.

He fixes his gaze on the proprietor and asks, "You are certain that this is the finest manuscript available of The Scroll of Isaiah?" "Indeed, your honor, it is. And if I might say so, it would prove a worthy addition to the state library of your kingdom." The official continues his examination and the proprietor, somewhat blunderingly, adds: "Sir, honored guest, you must understand that this scroll represents the dedicated work of one of the most able scribes of the land for a minimum of three months of his life. It is the very life blood of..." The guest waves a dismissive hand and the proprietor understands—his speech is over.

"How much is the scroll?" There is no hint of barter in the question. Instead, it is a paraphrase for, "Name your price. And make it a fair one." The merchant does so. "Sir, this splendid Greek manuscript is on sale today, for you, for $19,999." The guest turns toward one of his entourage and nods. The servant steps forward and pulls from the folds of his garment a bulging bag, opens the top, and begins to count out onto the countertop, some $20,000 in gold coin. The task complete, he closes the bag, secrets it in his garments, and steps back into the group.

The proprietor, in turn, nods to his staff and they carefully prepare, roll, and wrap the manuscript. The propri etor and the esteemed guest from the distant kingdom bow slightly to each other, a sign of respect, a signal that they have concurred on the deal just concluded.

Trusted members of the visiting party reach forward to carry the scroll. The honored guest motions them away and he himself reaches forward and cradles the precious Scroll of Isaiah the Prophet as though it were the newborn baby of his queen.

Outside the doors of the book shop, the caravan forms for the long trip home . . .

1 See D. W. Mead, "Ethiopian Eunuch/' International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:197.

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John McVay, Ph.D., is the president of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

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